By Louis Addeo-Weiss
Before delving any further into this, it is important to stress this: one player does not make a team function as a whole. We saw this when Bryce Harper, the crown jewel of the Washington Nationals’ ascendancy to relevance, left for Philadelphia.
In the case of third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, this, too, is true; however, his departure could signal the beginning of an end to the best run of Chicago Cubs’ baseball in recent memory.
With news coming down this past week of the team winning their grievance case, one which Bryant filed following the end of the 2015 season, the Cubs retain control of the 28-year old through the 2021 season, axing what would’ve been his first year of free agency.
At this point, while he still may play half of his games at Wrigley Field, Bryant’s relationship with the Cubs appears permanently tarnished. Many have speculated about whether or not he stays with the team through 2021, with many a rumor circulating about potential trades.
Since bursting on the scene in 2015, Bryant’s 136 OPS+ is tied with teammate Anthony Rizzo for 12th in the sport, with his 25.1 bWAR (baseball-reference) ranking 11th.
Were Bryant to leave, say, at the 2020 July 31st Trade Deadline, it would best suit Chicago to start thinking towards the future, with a possible Bryant trade being the impetus for that.
Now, with a first-year manager in David Ross taking over for Joe Maddon, Ross will be forced to answer a lot of questions about his club in what looks to be a wildly competitive NL Central.
Longtime first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s contract runs through the 2020 season, though the club would most certainly pick up his option for 2021, which would see Rizzo earn $16.5 million.
Since the start of the 2014 season, Rizzo’s 138 OPS+ ranks 8th in the majors.
If no talks of an extension with Rizzo come to fruition, he may become a vaunted trade commodity come July.
Javier Baez’s name is one garnering much chatter of late, with the general consensus being the Cubs’ May look to extend him in advance of free agency. Baez, who has one more year of arbitration eligibility, is too, under club control through 2021.
Baez’s 4.8 WAR ranked 5th amongst all shortstops in the majors in 2019, with the former top prospect slugging .531 and netting 16 total defensive runs saved, so the Cubs will be faced with a difficult decision as to whether they extend him moving forward.
Again though, the status of Bryant’s future in Chicago affects all of this, but alas, other factors still influence what the Cubs may do after 2020.
Keeping it close to the friendly confines, the team, according to Spotrac, expects to have a payroll of $183.8 million in 2020, with a lot of that being dead money in the form of production.
Right fielder Jason Heyward is set to make $23.5 million in the fifth year of an eight-year, $184 million dollar contract he signed prior to the team’s 2016 World Series-winning season, though the general consensus points to him being wasted space on the roster given his offensive woes.
Since the start of 2016, amongst players with at least 2,000 plate appearances, Heyward’s 86 OPS+ ranks 90th of 96 players. Heyward’s value is reflected, however, in his strong defensive play, with 45 defensive saved in that span of time, and 151 for the entirety of his career.
Unfortunately, Heyward’s contract is more than likely unmovable given his aforementioned offensive inefficiencies, but one may figure the team may be inclined to eat the final year of the deal, later on, should the three previously mentioned names above find homes elsewhere.
On the rubber, the team already has $66 million committed to Jon Lester, Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Chatwood, and Yu Darvish, four names who’ve experienced their share of struggles in Chicago.
Joining the team mid-season following an extended holdout in free agency, Kimbrel and the Cubs agreed to a three-year, $43 million dollar deal, only to see him pitch to a 6.53 ERA and -0.5 WAR over 20.2 innings.
Lester is entering his age 36-season and coming off a year that saw his ERA balloon to 4.46, with the left-hander allowing an NL-worst 205 hits. Fortunately, Lester is only under contract until 2021, but a bounceback start to 2020 could merit trading him as a means of saving on payroll.
After a disastrous 2019 which saw him look more like 2000-Rick Ankiel with a sport-worst 95 walks across just 103.2 innings, Chatwood bounced back nicely in 2020, posting a 3.76 ERA while splitting time between starting and relieving.
2020 will likely be Chatwood’s final year on the north side, as he’s set to make $13 million in the third year of a three-year, $39 million dollar deal he signed following the 2017 season after five years in Colorado.
As for Darvish, the Japanese phenom is entering the third year of a six-year, $126 million dollar pact he signed with Chicago after a disastrous finish to the 2017 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Among pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched since the start of 2018, Darvish’s 11.4 K9 ranks 7th in the majors.
Despite this, the Cubs are still footing the $81 million dollar bill on Darvish moving forward, which is something they may soon want to crawl out from under, especially on someone who is 33 and comes with an extensive injury history that includes Tommy John Surgery as well as additional elbow injuries.
A potential Bryant trade, if executed properly, could be a nice reset to inject future assets into the Cubs’ now depleted minor league system.
Jim Callis, who writes for MLB.com, notes the team’s recent struggles with developing pitching, with their best in-house pitcher in recent memory being Rob Zastryzny, who pitched a mere 34.1 innings from 2016-18. Baseball-America ranked the team’s farm system 29th of 30 teams last August, with all signs pointing to a rebuild in the near future.
What the Cubs are going through here at the present time is similar to that of what the Red Sox have begun to deal with following their 2018-championship winning season, as the years of trading prospect capital and bad contracts have begun to catch up to them, atrophying the roster in the process.
Oh yeah, the team also has a disgruntled superstar of their own to speak of, with right fielder Mookie Betts being the subject of extensive trade talks this offseason.